Commentary: Attacks on birthright citizenship are nothing new

As a nation of immigrants, the United States has long held that people born on U.S. soil become citizens — with the notable exception of the period when slavery was legal. But Californians are no strangers to efforts to change the U.S. Constitution to strip birthright citizenship for children of noncitizens. These proposals come and go with waves of anti-immigration.

The latest bid, just in time for midterm elections, is being launched by several members of the U.S. Senate and House. Local members of Congress Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, and Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, have long advocated denial of birthright citizenship to native-born persons unless the mother or father is a citizen.

U.S. Sen. James D. Phelan of California (serving 1915- 1921) was a pioneer in such efforts, and today's members of Congress are his heirs.

Phelan supported laws that prohibited Chinese, Japanese and other Asian immigrants from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens. But he saw it as a giant loophole that their children born on U.S. soil were citizens: "As these children become of age they are full-fledged American citizens and can own land and enjoy elective franchise and destroy our ideals and institutions."

Phelan acknowledged that "from the beginning of the Republic children born upon the soil are ipso facto citizens." So he proposed to change birthright citizenship in the U.S. Constitution with a 1920 amendment. He ran during the 1920 election on the slogan: "Stop the SILENT INVASION." In the end, Phelan was defeated, so that 1920 amendment went nowhere.

That shameful era thankfully passed. But a new one is upon us.

There's a big roadblock, fortunately. The U.S. Supreme Court issued a strong opinion in 1898 affirming birthright citizenship as a constitutional right.

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